The brutal truth about small-press, there is not nearly the budget or man-power there as you will find at a larger house. That means the author MUST step up to the plate. As a small-press author there is not a lot of support or representation from a promotional standpoint, unless it is self-generated. The most productive way of doing this is through public appearances. Since my name is not yet well known bookstore events are not very effective, however, being an author of speculative fiction—primarily fantasy and military science fiction—I have found that literary focused science fiction conventions have gained me both name recognition and a fan base more than worth the time and expense of attending them. May of my books, mostly the anthologies, would not exist without the contacts I made at conventions. The Bad-Ass Faeries books found their publisher because of such contacts, and So It Begins is full of big-name authors, some of which I met at my very first convention.
I am not alone in this. Many authors of all levels are making use of this resource, and increasingly they are also becoming vendors, offering their own works in the dealer's room as it is the only guaranteed way to ensure the presence and availability of your books there. I am one of these authors, out of necessity really. When I was starting out with one book and no clue I encountered the harsh reality that the major book sellers at conventions (or at least the ones I went to) weren't going to give my work a second thought, and even if they did, no one knew my work enough to come looking for the titles if they had agreed to carry them. Every book I sold in the beginning was primarily on the weight of my personality and the amount of effort I spent convincing the customer to take a chance. In some ways, that never ends.
My primary yearly convention is Balticon (www.balticon.org) one of the oldest science fiction conventions on the East Coast of the United States. It is held every May over Memorial Day weekend, in Baltimore, Maryland. Being a four-day convention it is a bit more costly than other cons. This year, for instance: $400 for the hotel (3 nights at $132/night), $260 for a space in the dealer's room (2 tables at $130/table), plus food, which can average about $150 for two people over the weekend if supplemented by food provided by the convention, travel costs come to roughly another $80 between gas and tolls. That brings the basic cost of attending this particular convention to $886 before cost-saving measures. Those cost saving measures are as follows: Share a hotel room -$200, share the dealer's tables with other individual authors (mainly contributors to my anthologies) -$200, bring food -$50, carpool -$30. That makes the adjusted cost of this convention $406. A much more budget-friendly figure.
Now to maximize the impact of the convention, and because Balticon is one of the largest I attend with an average of 2000 to 3000 attendees over the course of the weekend, I generally hold a book launch party there as a part of the programming. This means the convention supports me with a room for the party, advertising in the program book, free memberships for those involved, and staff support during the event. Costs of a launch party: roughly $300 for food and drinks, and anywhere from $50 to $500 for a unique raffle prize used to promote the launch and entice sales. These costs can be mitigated by soliciting donations of food or prize contributions from fellow authors, vendors, and contributors of the book if it happens to be an anthology. I have held a book launch at Balticon every year for the last five years. I have become so well-known for them that I have had other conventions approach me asking if I would like to do a book launch at their convention. Two of my most successful launches have been for my books Bad-Ass Faeries and Bad-Ass Faeries 2: Just Plain Bad. The costs for the BAF launch was $300 (in addition to the normal cost of attending the convention) bringing the cost of that weekend to $706. However, I sold 96 copies of Bad-Ass Faeries alone (at $15/book) for a total of $1440. Combine that with my sales of my other titles and I sold over $2000 worth of books that weekend. 88 people attended the launch. For Bad-Ass Faeries 2 the following year, the take was more modest, but the impact was more profound. We only sold 49 copies of the book itself, but a combined total of 146 books and book-related items, for sales of $2259. 120 people attended the launch.
Conventions themselves are a great source of advertising, exposure, and networking that cannot be gauged in terms of cost versus profit. For example, when I started attending conventions I had one novel: Yesterday's Dreams. I had to sell it myself out of a backpack because the book vendor at the convention was unwilling to take a chance on a small-press unknown. I didn't make any money that convention, I put quite a bit out (because I had yet to learn the cost-saving tricks) but I met people at that convention that I still count as friend today. Through those friendships I have been invited to submit to invitation-only collections, in return, I have invited them to my own collections, three of which are award-winning. I have learned from some of the best in the industry and I've had drinks and even dinner with some of the legends of my genres. Some of them regularly give me hugs upon sight. Niche conventions have helped me to build a name for myself with my target audience (a small one, despite its great length, but growing). This is because I am accessible and because conventions give you the opportunity to talk to the fans in both a formal and informal setting, through panel discussions on key writing and publishing topics, as well as through idle chat in the con suite or the halls.
I actually am grateful to the book vendor that would not carry my books because he forced me to step out there and sell them myself, bringing me that much closer to my fans, a much more personal experience. I have learned that no one…absolutely no one, can sell my book like I can. They aren't vested in it, they aren't passionate about it and they don't care about making fans. When I see people actively seeking out my table in a dealers room to see what I have new, or when a past customer's face lights up when they realize I'm there and they promptly purchase every one of the books they don't already have I have made a connection I never would have made if my books were wedged in next to the big-house mega titles the "professional" booksellers at the con have on their table. I have found that when I place my books in someone else's hands there is a marked decrease in sales as much as 90%. Part of that is the glamour of meeting an author and buying a signed copy, part of that is the energy I put into engaging the potential reader. No, they don't always buy, but they generally do listen, so maybe next time they buy, or maybe they visit my website when they go home, or even Amazon or the publisher's website. There is a noticeable increase in traffic, if not always sales, after every large event I participate in.
From time to time I will take a chance on another kind of event to expand my readership and market. I've done pulp collector shows, faerie festivals, and even craft fairs.
Pulp shows are a good example of knowing your target audience and sticking with it. There is some cross-over, but I and my type of work is not why these people are there. I did a one-day event in Bordentown, NJ because I was able to get the space for free. I spent eight hours working very hard to get people just to stop at my table and talk to me. The space cost me nothing, the transportation costs were nominal, but in eight hours I only took in $164, which represented nine books and two magnets. There could have been much better use of my time and the only people I connected with were those people I was already familiar with overlapping from my more standard science fiction events.
No Question today...too late to think of one...but one big hooray...Received my copies of The Halfling's Court today. Whee! Does it look fantastic... Hope to see some of you at Faeriecon so I can show it off ;)
For me niche, fan-oriented shows are more effective at this point in my career. The ratio of authors to readers is more conducive to increasing awareness, whereas at book expos or writing conferences there is frankly more competition to the point that the audience can easily forget your small part in the larger event because it is all about books and the proportion of authors to audience is more about 30/70% as opposed to 5 or 10/90% you get with fan conventions. Still, each year I participate in the Collingwood Book Festival as a vendor; it is a more mainstream event so they limit the participants to big-name or mainstream authors, rather than small-press or genre authors. It is a one-day event costing $25 for a 10' x 10' space, which I generally split with a friend, and our take has been roughly $400 to $500 each year, combined. It is a more chancy venue because though the audience members are readers, they are not necessarily speculative readers, that and given that the event is outdoors. I don't make professional connections here and the conditions are less reliable, but for a one-day event the profit versus expense is worth it.
Now, I know personally selling your work isn't for every author. After all, how many of us write because it's easier to face characters--even the nasty ones--than it is to deal with people in real life? But it is a viable option for those extroverted enough to venture into the realm of convention dealership.